Life

The Price of Equality

Sociologist Abigail Ocobock on how same-sex marriage has caused a “suppressing and softening” of radical queer critique.

Two men laughing while toasting and preparing a meal together.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images.

This piece is part of the Legacies issue, a special Pride Month series from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read an introduction to the issue here.

Four years out from Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage across the U.S., the once intense debate over whether marriage equality would be “good” for the LGBTQ community has quieted down. We won the thing, and even for those queers who still harbor qualms about marriage’s impact on our politics, continuing to inveigh against “conservative, heteronormative assimilation” (or whatever) has come to feel fairly pointless. Wedding bells, whether we like it or not, are now a defining feature of American gay life.

These shifts are the sort of thing that fascinate Abigail Ocobock, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame. For about a decade now, Abigail has studied what the rise of marriage equality is doing to queer individuals, relationships, and communities. Indeed, her pioneering research in Massachusetts (the first state to approve same-sex marriage in 2004) between 2012 and 2013 produced the first and most significant data set capturing how a relatively long period of access to marriage impacted LGBQ people’s lives. Abigail has already mined this trove for range of fascinating insights, and she’s currently writing a book that will use the case of same-sex marriage to better understand how marriage broadly works as an institution.

I recently caught up with Abigail to discuss one application of her work, a chapter in an edited volume titled “From Public Debate to Private Decision: The Normalization of Marriage Among Critical LGBQ People.” We discussed why marriage is “greedy,” how queer critiques of it have been suppressed and softened, and why it might feel awkward to call out a radical feminist for suddenly dropping the word “wife.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

J. Bryan Lowder: Broadly speaking, your work is about how big social institutions like marriage impact relationships and families. How did you come to be interested in that constellation of questions and how it relates to queer people?

Abigail Ocobock: I see myself as a family and marriage scholar, and so I’m trying to understand: What is this institution of marriage? Why does it have such dominance in our lives? Why is it so idolized and important? And how exactly does it work? For all the talk of marriage, we don’t have a very clear understanding of how it impacts us.

Around the time that I was really starting to focus in these questions, there was obviously a lot of movement around same-sex marriage. I suppose the biggest thing for me was I couldn’t believe how little we knew, and actually still don’t know, about the impact of marriage equality [on queer life]. It seemed like for all of the debates, it was really just mostly speculation. So for me it was an obvious research need. We needed systematic data on this.

There’s been this fear, a very abstract fear I think, on the queer left around marriage equality for a long time. It’s this idea that gays, once we got married, would become “normal” (the Michael Warner thesis) and would give up critiques of patriarchy and economic inequality and all of that. You have this great line from [queer scholar] Lisa Duggan in your chapter: We’re going get married and “go home and cook dinner, forever.”

Yeah, I love that [Duggan quote]. I am responding to that line of thinking, absolutely. But I would add that I’m also approaching this as a sociologist, and there’s this whole body of sociological research that shows how marriage is a “greedy institution.” Once people get married, because contemporary marriage requires focus and you’re supposed to just be totally focused on your partner, it sucks all your time and energy away from your broader community. Research on heterosexual marriage shows that married people, they volunteer less. They spend less time with friends. They talk to their neighbors less. So as a sociologist, I’m just curious if we are going to see marriage being quite so greedy for queer folk as well or not.

At the same time, I was very interested in seeing how much some of the queer critiques would become true. And not only that, but how they would become true. It’s one thing to say, we’re going to see this increasing homonormativity, an increasing assimilation into mainstream culture, this kind of depoliticization of the queer community. But what I was really interested in is, well, if we see that, how exactly is this happening and why? What about marriage makes that happen?

As you said, a lot of these concerns had been sort of abstract and theoretical before. So you decided to go check it out on the ground in Massachusetts. What was your research approach?

My goal was to just engage in a broad-scope research study. What I mean by that is, I wanted to talk to everybody. I wanted to make sure that I included people who were both married and unmarried. People who were really interested in marriage and people who have no interest in getting married at all. So it’s a big study. It’s a survey and an interview study: 116 people took part. And they all completed a pretty extensive survey. To be honest with you, I was amazed that they were willing to take the time to complete it. And then they would do an interview with me. And you know, the interviews were so broad. I’d ask about life histories, and then all the different ways that they understood marriage and experienced it at home and in their communities and in their extended families.

Are there any limitations to the research that we should acknowledge before we look at what you found?

Absolutely. I think the biggest qualm is that I can’t speak to the trans experience. It’s not that it doesn’t include it. When I was recruiting, I certainly was not excluding the trans community. The only criteria was that you had to be in a same-gender relationship of a year or more. But I didn’t have any trans people volunteer to participate. And so I realized pretty quickly that I just couldn’t speak to their experiences. We need to know a lot more about the trans experience around marriage. We really just don’t have that data, as far as I know.

Also, it’s a pretty highly educated sample. Over 90 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher. And we know that experiences of marriage really vary by education, both for heterosexuals and in the LGBT community. So I think that that’s a really big limitation, that we’re only speaking to a particular segment of the population there.

So in this chapter, you look specifically at people who had been previously marriage-suspicious or marriage-critical and how they evolved in their feelings about it over time.

Yeah, I wanted to take a subgroup of my sample that had expressed to me that, at some point, they had been very critical of marriage as an institution. Or that they had been very critical of homonormativity, or something broader like that. And just see, well, what happened to them? Especially since, as they were telling me this, I was thinking: But you got married. I wanted to understand what that process was like for them.

What was the top-line finding there?

I think there are a few. One of the things that I found most interesting was the extent to which a kind of social etiquette seemed to make these once very critical people, or even people who still felt very critical of marriage as an institution, feel like they couldn’t express that as freely anymore. Because suddenly you’re getting wedding invitations in the mail. And it’s not this abstract debate that you’re having. Your good friends that you’ve known for years are getting married. And it might be seen as insulting to decline. Or, even more than to decline, to challenge them. Do you say, wait a minute, what about all those debates we used to have? I think there was this kind of self-policing going on. People realized that it just wasn’t seen as appropriate anymore to critique marriage as an institution because they were worried that if they did, it would come across as a personal attack.

What I heard a lot was this group of people saying that we just kind of have to grin and bear it. People told me that they just couldn’t believe that people they’d known for years, that they thought identified as radical feminists, were now calling each other “wife.” But they didn’t feel like they could say anything to these people even though they’d obviously once had very deep conversations with them about marriage. Now they felt like they have to keep it all in. You can’t critique the fact that someone is now wearing a big, flashy diamond ring when once they were anti-capitalist.

That was one of the biggest findings: Before you have access to something, it’s kind of fair game, right? It’s this abstract theoretical thing and we can all jump in and we can critique it.
Or at least debate it openly. And then suddenly you gain access to it, and your friends are doing it, and your family’s doing it, and you just don’t feel able to be as critical anymore.

In addition to the etiquette issue, you also identified other mechanisms muting the criticism of marriage. Can you talk about the role emotion played for your respondents?

Sure. It wasn’t just that the people were keeping [their criticisms] in or felt like they couldn’t express them anymore. Over time, reluctantly or not, they acknowledged to me that their views had softened. People would tell me, well suddenly we were going to these weddings and you know, I couldn’t believe how overcome with emotion I was. I couldn’t believe how happy I felt for these people getting married. And so, the emotional power of marriage was really striking. You could have these intellectual critiques of marriage as an institution, but then all of a sudden it was happening and people got very, very swept up in the emotion of it. Like, people saying: How could you not be moved by watching an elderly couple on the news that had been together for 50 years suddenly being able to tie the knot? It was always sort of unhuman not to be moved by them.

Along with that, the more that you felt warmed by it, and softened, suddenly then the next stage is: Oh, well maybe I can do this myself

Thinking about everyone that you spoke with, can you recall a particularly striking example of someone who felt themselves retreating from more radical queer politics, and how they made sense of that?

I think there were two types of people; I can give you an example of both. There were some people who would have identified at some point as more radical, more critical, or queerer in some way, and some of those people were still really actively struggling. They were ashamed almost at how much they saw their views changing. And then there was this other group that didn’t really dwell on it much. It just seems like they had no explanation.

Of the first type, there’s this young woman that often I think about. I call her Ruby. She was agonizing over this. Her interview was maybe three hours long, and halfway through she said, can I open a bottle of wine? Because she was just to trying to process all of this. She was struggling with the fact that at one point in her life she’d imagined perhaps raising kids with a best friend. Not even being in a romantic relationship. That had been her dream, to have this alternative, queer family. And then she moved to Massachusetts, and she said she found there were no alternative models like that anymore. She didn’t actually have any immediate desire to get married. But she was struggling with the fact that, over time, she was starting to think, like, oh well you know if I got married, what would it look like? Or, if I got married, what would I wear? It was infiltrating her imagination. She couldn’t not think about it.

And then, on the other side, there was an older man who was in a relationship with someone much younger. As he was telling me his life history and his relationship history, a big part of what he was talking about was having lived through the AIDS crisis and having lost a very long-term partner and many friends to it. And that was the basis for which he had felt really critical of marriage when the movement for equality started. He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to participate in an institution that had anything to do with government, when government had so abandoned the gay community during the AIDS crisis. He was also involved in all these alternative communities, like the erotic massage community. He was very critical of marriage, of any sort of government intervention in queer relationships. And very involved in alternative communities.

But then, he got married! I remember, multiple times in the interview, trying to push him and probe him for what happened. And he just couldn’t really offer me an explanation. It was just kind of gradual: Over time people asked, well, are you going to do it? And over time, he started thinking, yeah, well maybe I could do it. Sure, why not? [That’s what I mean by] gradual softening.

After doing this work, and looking forward, I’m curious if you have thoughts about what these changes bode for the future of queer politics. What is marriage’s legacy?

I suppose what I would say about the legacy is that there’s a loss. There’s a price to social inclusion. I heard this from my respondents in all kinds of ways. I have another piece that I wrote, which is about the loss of organized community. There is this sense the more included you are, the less need people felt for any kind of organized LGBT community. And so [after marriage] all these once vibrant groups and organizations started shutting their doors. So that’s one thing.

But there’s also, as I wrote in the [main chapter we are talking about], a more depoliticized community. So the community becomes less vibrant, less active, but also less politicized, less radical. Certainly the [previously critical] subgroup of my participants were aware of that. They were, at times, often nostalgic. There was this kind of nostalgia for the way the community used to be.

So I would say the legacy is sort of a loss of radical politics in the community. Though not a complete loss: I want to make sure I make that clear. There are obviously very active segments of the community that are still radical and critical, and the queer community is alive and vibrant and well. But I think what my research shows is that kind of politics isn’t reaching everyone anymore, whereas it used to be something that everybody was at least engaged in a little bit.

Going back to that Lisa Duggan quote, of people going home to cook, forever—I don’t know that I agree with that. But people are focusing in on themselves a little bit more. And all the processes that I describe mean that they’re just not encountering or engaging with a radical politics quite as much. I think that’s certainly one legacy of marriage equality.

Read more of Outward’s Legacies issue.